Sunday, April 11, 2010

Write what you know

The subject of today’s missive is the old axiom, “Write what you know.” Every writer has probably heard this phrase hundreds of time. In fact, if you Google the phrase you will find hundreds of people that have written on the subject before me. So why discuss something that is so basic and so obvious to every writer? Because it really is THAT important.

You may ask, “But I write fantasy, or science fiction, or whatever. I’ve never lived on another world with dragons, elves, or possibly spaceships and extraterrestrials. I can’t be held to the same standard right?” The answer is a resounding, “Yes, you must write what you know, ALWAYS, regardless of genre.”

In Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings many of the themes he wrote about are unmistakable. J.R.R. Tolkien fought in WWI, and wrote much of the manuscript during WWII. Having elves, dwarves, and humans fighting alongside each other taught several lessons on tolerance, as these races typically didn’t like or trust each other. Obviously, there are significant religious undertones as well, with Gandalf being a Christ like figure, complete with a death and resurrection. Despite writing about different races that we’ve never met, elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, etc., Tolkien wrote what he knew as there was deep symbolism behind his writing that he understood very well.

I recently wrote a book review where I have firsthand experience about the themes the author discussed. Though the trials and conflicts that she described did not happen the same way that mine did, I could feel the truth of her words. Small details, like a surgeon will want to wait a few days after a person has had a heart attack to perform open heart surgery were very realistic.

I wrote a story that included two young men sparring with wooden practice swords. One combatant strikes the other on the arm and breaks it. Later on in my life, I unfortunately shattered my elbow and completely sheared off the radial head.

About a month after this experience I went back and rewrote that scene so that the person’s elbow got shattered in the sparring match. I know a lot about that. I know what the rehab is like. I know that when you squeeze your hand into a fist and the bone next to your elbow juts out hard against your skin that you should be very worried. I know what it feels like to shatter an elbow. Long story short, I have never sparred with another person with wooden practice swords. However, back in my youth I got into a few fights and know what those are like and I also know what a broken elbow is like. I wrote about that.

I attended a writers’ conference a few years ago and listened to a presenter say, “Your experience is the lens that you see life through…learn to write from your inner core of strength…Write from your places of pain. Write about a difficult and emotionally painful experience. Write everything, and then write how you got through it. Put your fear and joy into your writing…You need to be willing to say, ‘I don’t care if others laugh at my pain.’ When you put honesty into your writing the reader will sense it. When you write with honesty your words have power.”

A while back I read a book that had a fair amount of conflict and suffering in it, most books do. However, at the end of the book, I was left with the distinct impression that the author had lived a relatively charmed life. I envied the author in that regard. However, it made the book difficult to read, and even more difficult to believe. There were clearly good guys and bad guys in the story. The good guys were always happy, in fact, sometimes downright giddy in the middle of conflict. The protagonist discovered his father had been murdered in a brutal way. He also knew that his life would be forfeit if he were caught, so he was running for his life. While running he had flashbacks to pleasant childhood memories with a friend. He subsequently hid in a rock for the night where by all accounts, he had about the best night’s sleep he ever had. I was left scratching my head.

Here’s the thing, and it’s important, so please keep reading. The author was actually very good in many aspects of writing. There were times when I marveled at the author’s ability to string words together. Unfortunately, the writer just didn’t understand suffering or grief.

Write what you know. If you have lived a pleasant life devoid of anguish, go find someone that has. Listen to his or her stories and understand their emotions, feel them. Alternatively, write non-fiction.

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